Though an affordable older car is a great way to spare your shiny performance car the pains of driving through winter, it can also make for a fun and safe winter conveyance. Ironically, beaters make great winter cars because they lack many of today’s standard safety features.
“ABS brakes can take twice as long to get a car stopped on snow than a halfway decent driver without them,” says Wyatt Knox, special projects director at Team O’Neil Rally School and Rally America 2WD National Champion. “Traction control will cut your engine power or apply brakes when it senses spinning wheels, such as when you try to drive up a hill, meaning you might not make it and could potentially go sliding back down. Without these systems, you know what you’ve got. You know exactly what the car will do when you give it a specific input, you quickly learn what it can and can’t do, then just operate within those boundaries and you’re fine.”
Knox also notes that while four- and all-wheel drive are great advancements, they aren’t the be-all-end-all for winter driving. Proof positive is his personal choice of car, a 1996 Mazda Miata, which he uses year-round — yes, even in the winter, in New Hampshire.
“I guess I’ve always just liked the challenge of getting around with only two-wheel-drive. It makes you think more, work harder, plan ahead, be smooth, and you really don’t get away with too many mistakes. It’s great training,” said Knox. “You also slide around more, which is always good entertainment.”
Should you decide to tackle winter in an older car, it’s best to be prepared. Understand the importance of knowing how your car reacts in the snow, and, equally importantly, be open to doing a little wrenching (or pay for someone to do the wrenching for you). Knox shared some tips for getting any old car ready for the imminent snowfall.
First and foremost: tires. “Number one will always be acquiring the best possible winter tires that you can find and afford, mounting them to all four wheels,” says Knox. Winter tires are thinner, taller sidewalls and rubber compounds that offer more grip in low temperatures — if you’re going to do one thing for winter, make it a tire upgrade. But Knox notes traction goes beyond just having the right tires. “Tire pressure changes about one psi per ten degrees, so if you set your tires at 32 psi on a 60º day, you might be surprised to see that on a 0º degree morning they only have 26 psi in them. If you take a corner hard or get right up to highway speeds, that tire could easily have a catastrophic failure.”
Winterize your car. There are tons of little things you can do to make your car operate optimally in low temperatures. Knox suggests topping off the anti-freeze, swapping oil to a thinner viscosity, mounting winter windshield wiper blades and adding de-icing washer fluid. Knox also highly recommends making sure the car is caught up with regular maintenance before wintertime. “If your car breaks down at night on a back road, it can turn into a legitimate survival situation pretty quickly. ”
Pack a survival kit. In case you do get stranded, pack a duffle with some essentials: a first aid kit, blankets, extra winter clothes, matches, flashlight, tow straps, jumper cables, an extra phone charger, road salt and/or traction mats and water and snacks. “The peace of mind alone is worth the effort,” says Knox.
Change up your suspension. “If you’re going to be driving quickly in the snow and ice, there are a number of things you can do to have more fun and get around a little better. You really want more ground clearance and much slower, more exaggerated weight transfer in the winter,” said Knox. When turning and accelerating or decelerating the weight of the car can affect the amount of traction the wheels get. But with slower and smoother weight transfer, the risk of sudden added (or removed) traction from the wheels reduces the likelihood of spinning. To achieve this, Knox recommends adding a taller, softer suspension, and fitting lighter sway bars (or removing them completely).
Adjust your brake bias. Normally, your car’s braking power is biased towards the front on dry pavement because when you stop, the vehicle’s weight transfers towards the front, thus more braking power at the front means quicker stops. However, when on slippery surfaces like snow and ice, less weight transfers to the front in the absence of traction, which means less braking power. When setting up a car to perform better on slippery surfaces, a brake-proportioning valve can be used to send more brake fluid to the rear brakes than usual, increasing stopping power at the back. Knox notes this technique really only works properly on cars without antilock brakes. ABS, generally, is a great safety feature to have in inclement weather, but should you disable it or drive a car without it, be prepared to master threshold braking.
If you want to go the extra mile, install a limited-slip differential. When you execute a turn in a car, because the outside wheel is covering more distance, an open differential makes it turn at a faster rate, which in turn facilitates stable cornering. But on cars with open differentials, it allows all driven wheels to continue to spin in the absence of traction, while the other wheel with traction remains stationary. The fix here is a limited-slip differential, which will provide more power to the wheel with more traction. While it’s ideal to have a car already equipped with a limited-slip diff, according to Knox, “You can usually find limited-slip or other replacement differentials pretty easily and have them replaced.”
Be a better driver. Knox’s final point: if you really want to drive safely in the snow, take the time and effort to learn from professionals how to master driving in bad conditions. “If you do get into a skid and start to lose control, there’s always something you can do to either regain control or, at the very least, minimize the damage to your vehicle if you know it’s going to crash. Our specialty is training drivers to see these things ahead of time and to take action before a bad situation occurs, and also giving them the skills they need to get out of those bad situations when they are absolutely unavoidable.”